By Christi Parsons, Los Angeles Times (TNS)
PALO ALTO, Calif. — He’s getting sappy on college campuses, wringing his hands about his tuition savings plan and waxing nostalgic about his own years as an undergraduate.
President Barack Obama is hurtling toward a deadline that looms over him much like the end of his time in office does — the day his first child leaves for college.
Like other parents, he’s thinking about how much it will cost to provide a higher education for his daughter Malia, a high school junior whose recent tour of colleges on the East and West coasts was hard to hide from social media.
Unlike most fathers, though, Obama thinks he can do something about it. Personal experience is clearly informing the president’s public policy.
In his State of the Union address last month, Obama proposed eliminating so-called 529 college savings plans, though the White House backed off the idea once it became clear that it would be unpopular. He also began pushing a proposal last month that would make the first two years of college free to all students as long as they were willing to take their core classes at a community college.
Fatherhood and work have intertwined throughout Obama’s career. Not long after his daughter Sasha was diagnosed as an infant with meningitis, Obama, then a state senator, introduced a child-health bill in the Illinois Legislature.
As his girls and their friends progressed in school, he began to criticize President George W. Bush as underfunding the federal No Child Left Behind initiative. In his 2004 campaign for U.S. Senate, while Malia began first grade, he talked about investing in after-school programs and early childhood education.
Obama has hounded colleges to get their costs under control for years. Nowadays, though, the president is being uncharacteristically public about what’s going on at home, mentioning the prospect of being a college dad — and the question of paying tuition — in speeches.
In one, he explained why he had changed his mind about backing the 529 proposal.
“I have 529s for both Malia and Sasha,” he said this month in Indiana. “The problem is when you looked at the statistics, the people who used them most were folks who were a little on the high end. And so our thinking was you could save money by eliminating the 529 and shift the money into loan programs that were a little more broadly based.”
It wasn’t entirely clear whether he was worried about the effect on public policy or on himself.
“There’s probably a little bit of transference, remembering his own excitement at qualifying for these great schools but also carrying that underlying anxiety about affording it,” said Carl Sferrazza Anthony, a presidential historian who studies first families.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, said Anita McBride, the former chief of staff to Laura Bush, whose daughters Jenna and Barbara began college a few months before their father was sworn in as president.
“All of our leaders do better when they have that sensitivity about what’s going on at the ground level,” McBride said. “He’s not just dealing with this based on a briefing he got from the secretary of Education,” she said of Obama. “He’s walking through it personally.”
Obama will not be the first president to send a daughter off to school while running the country. Decades ago, Margaret Truman and Lynda Bird Johnson commuted across the capital to George Washington University.
Secret Service agents accompanied Amy Carter to Brown University, Chelsea Clinton to Stanford University and Bush’s twins to Yale University and the University of Texas.
Michelle Obama is taking care to keep Malia Obama’s deliberations private, but visiting colleges in the age of Twitter means never having to announce that you’re touring the University of California at Berkeley, Stanford University, New York University and Columbia University.
Thanks mostly to the proceeds from writing best-selling books, it has been years since the president needed to worry about money, said a close family friend, but he remembers struggling to pay for college.
“It’s still fresh in his mind,” said Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to the president who has known the Obama family for years. “That’s the difference between him and other people who talk about this. For them, it’s theoretical. For him, it’s real.”
Obama recently recalled that he and his wife shared not just the bonds of love but “the bonds of debt.” He began at Occidental College, an then graduated from Columbia University before entering the work world and eventually Harvard Law School. Michelle Obama went to Princeton University and to Harvard Law School.
Photo: President Barack Obama speaks at the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism in the EEOB building Feb. 18, 2015 in Washington, D.C. President Barack Obama defended his decision not to call war against ISIS a religious one during his remarks. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)